Achievement Unlocked: COM-ASES

Happy, newly-minted seaplane pilot.

Happy, newly-minted seaplane pilot.

Okay, this one’s for the pilots. Rest of you can move along.

After a freakishly little 3.6 hours of dual, I am now rated as COM-ASES, which stands for “Commercial Pilot, Airplane, Single Engine, Sea”  (I’m also COM-ASEL/AMEL and PPL/GLI, for the record).

If you’ve never flown a seaplane, heed my warning: don’t try it. You will become addicted. You will have trouble paying attention. You will start losing yourself to dreams of settling into a pristine mountain lake, of skimming fog-kissed surfaces and coming to rest in the middle of absolutely nowhere. You will start scheming how to convince your spouse that you need a seaplane, and gauging which of your other beloved possessions you’re willing to part with to make it happen.

The man who introduced me to this evil addiction was Kyle, an enthusiastic young flight instructor at Rainier Flight Services.  Kyle looks to be about as old as my kids, but he’s got what it takes to be a great instructor: excellent technique, clear communication, enormous patience and impressive attention to detail. Our mount was an American Champion Scout (8GCBC), effectively a beefed up Citabria with flaps and 180 horsepower. Enormous fun. I know folks say that nothing’s more fun than a Super Cub on floats, but in the Cubs vs Champs rivalry, I’ve always been firmly on the Champ side (and remember: the Citabria is a beefed up Champ).

I also know that folks say you want to learn floats in something like a 172, something a little underpowered, so that you can develop proper technique and not just power through things. Maybe. But sitting on the centerline with a throttle in your left hand and a stick in your right? And powering out in a confined space takeoff, spiraling up, leaving the water like a homesick angel? Heckafun. I’ll build up my technique later.

I don’t think there’s a lot to be gained by giving a play-by-play of the instruction and checkride. We only got above 500 feet once all three days, because once the plane is in the air, it’s a plane, and the assumption is that you already know how to fly a plane. So it’s all about takeoffs, landings and moving around on the water. You’ve got to be able to do them in glassy water, rough water, confined spaces, and need to know what to do when stuff goes wrong with any of those. The nice thing about takeoffs and landings with a seaplane, is that you can just pick a spot on the lake and go around in circles over and over again. In those 3.6 hours of dual we managed 36(!) landings, and that included all the time for step taxi, inertia turns, downwind sailing, docking, and the inevitable emergencies (the most stable condition for most seaplanes, it turns out, is upside down in the water, and there are all sorts of unexpected ways it can try to reach that equilibrium).

There’s a lot to absorb, and the first few takeoffs and landings feel disorienting and unnatural. But as Kyle promised, at some point, whether it’s five or twenty five, things just click, and bang – all your stick and rudder skills take over.

Anyhow. Enough random verbiage. I need some sleep. Here are some pictures:

The 8GCBC Scout - enormous fun

The 8GCBC Scout – a capable and sprightly mount.

This is how you get the Scout to/from the water.

How you get the Scout to/from the water.

What the truck looks like when it's not attached to an airplane.

What the truck looks like when it’s not attached to an airplane.

Kyle, approving of whatever the heck it is I've just done.

Kyle, approving of whatever the heck it is I’ve just done.

On the water at Lake Sammamish.

On the water at Lake Sammamish.





10 responses to “Achievement Unlocked: COM-ASES

  1. Pablo – Many questions (and insanely jealous!!!).
    1. How did you pick this flight school/instructor? I have been considering making a trip up to AK for this lifetime milestone.
    2. Ballpark, how much should one expect to pay for the privilege of seeing ASES on my pilot’s certificate?
    3. When are you buying that Icon A5???


    • 1. They were among the small pool of folks who returned my calls. Kenmore was busy until October, and Seattle Flight Service has their 172 down for a new engine. Kenmore’s considered the default in the PNW.
      2. Most of the packages offer 6 or 10 hours, and charge $1800-$2400 (the 3.5 hours was kind of freakishly short, but having all those Citabria hours helped enormously).
      3. Don’t think I’ve not been drooling over it. But too many airplanes already.


  2. Very cool! But I’ve always wondered: is it safe/legal to land a float plane on a narrow strip of river? A few years ago we had a period where a float plane would occasionally buzz by and then land on the Connecticut River by our house. Neat, but scared the heck out of me. The kids and I frequently paddle about in small boats, and sometimes swim across the river where the only thing visible would be a small, dark, wet head. How can the plane be sure there is no swimmer in the landing path?


  3. That, Dave, is an *excellent* question. A full 1/3 of my entire oral exam was on “Where can you legally land a seaplane?” (Note: not “safely,” but “legally” – as you might guess, the Venn diagram has plenty of room in both XORs). The rules are pretty complex and depend on state and municipal regulations. For the most part*, anything classified as “navigable waters” is subject to federal (rather than state or municipal) jurisdiction and is technically legal.

    *(Pilots are prohibited from flying below certain altitudes above marine sanctuaries, national parks, preserves and recreation areas, etc, which effectively prohibits landing in them. Which creates some interesting loopholes: you can’t land at Stehekin, at the north end of Lake Chelan, because it’s in a nat recreation area. But you can land a couple of miles south at the edge of the area and taxi in on the water…)

    But as I said, that’s the “legal” part. There’s clearly a lot of judgment needed on “safe,” and a pilot may still be cited for “reckless and careless operation” by the FAA for landing somewhere that one could reasonably expect people to be swimming. That’s a delicate dance. (I’m not sure if there’s a similar code for boaters operating; I guess I’d be just as – if not more – worried by powerboats, which you can legally drive without any training, and while drinking).

    In any case, I definitely understand the nervousness. And in my mind, the whole point of a seaplane is to go somewhere where there are no people for miles and miles around.


  4. Catching up on my blog reading, on this Saturday afternoon when I don’t have to work for 13 hours in a windowless conference room.

    “(the most stable condition for most seaplanes, it turns out, is upside down in the water, and there are all sorts of unexpected ways it can try to reach that equilibrium)”

    I wish you hadn’t even put that sentence in…

    But congrats on your Northwest sea adventure! It is always great to have a place that’s magical in your life, and that you feel a connection to. For Beth it is Mineral Point, Wisconsin. For me there are little pockets of cities I’ve lived in all over the globe.

    Also, how is Miranda doing? One month in is often a time for getting broadsided by emotions – one of those human paradoxes that the fact that you’re feeling at home in the place makes you suddenly very homesick for the old place.

    More soon from here!



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